Thursday, February 15, 2007

The American Tap - Leadership or a payout? The mayor's race in a nutshell.

The main issues that Sheila Simon is banking on to become mayor of Carbondale is the city's purchase of the American Tap building and land. I thought I might review what happened and try to figure out if the city did the right thing when they bought it.

As most of you know we are talking about a now vacant lot that is just to the south of El Greco's and north of College on Illinois Ave. 20-some years ago when I was in college, the American Tap was a hopping bar in an old converted house. You could be outside in the yard drinking and the place had a nice business (no parking, but everyone walked back then). It gets a little fuzzy for me in what happened while I was out of town, but at some point "The Tap" closed, had a fire and generally because a unusable mess. It also was purchased by Henry Fisher.

As time when on, it sat empty and like any building in Southern Illinois that sits empty, it begins to fall apart. So the city sent their inspectors in and tried to get Henry to fix the building or tear it down. Henry Fisher had developed a problem relationship with the city into a full out war of city abusive tickets and fines against him and his refusing to pay them or cooperate to stop them. I hear that he owed the city $250k at one point and negotiated down to pennies on the dollar.

The real problem with having a ruined building in the middle of downtown wasn't really the building, it was the drug addicts. It turns out the police just couldn't keep the drug addicts out of the American Tap building (who can blame them, it is private property so they can't just setup an office there, there is no place to observe without being seen). The drug addicts started to do the circuit of stealing and panhandling for money, buying drugs and then using the American Tap building to get high. They were sleeping in there, there were wild cats in the basement, used needles and condoms on the ground, it was gross.

Pretty soon, the whole downtown become polluted and honest citizens don't want to go there. Groups of college guys didn't have problems traveling in packs and I'm not sure the drug addicts were really violent, but still who needs it? You just go somewhere else.

The owner of this problem in any honest assessment should be Mayor Neil Dillard and our city manager. For many years Neil Dillard and the boys at city hall continued the war with Henry Fisher and decided to make "The Tap" one of the focal points. They would inspect the building and write up some problem, Henry would send his in house fix-it crew to make that problem better, the city would come back and do it again. Because of the way American law works with our strong property rights, the city really can't do much about this sort of thing. Most people get tired of being harassed by the city and will eventually give in and fix the problem or sell it. Henry isn't most people, he seemed to enjoy winning each petty battle with city hall and our longtime mayor.

In addition to be being a slum lord scumbag, Henry Fisher is also had a reputation as sexual predator. For the record, I have never met Henry, just know him by the stories. Over the years Henry, it is rumored, would get drunk and use his pass key to open apartment doors of coeds who rented from him and demand sex. If there was a legal problem, Henry would pay off the victim and wouldn't be prosecuted. His luck finally turned when he had a bad breakup with a girl friend in Marion and she accused him of sexual assault on her daughter. Knowing Henry's history, "the heat" in Marion got a legal wiretap on the victim's phone and waited for Henry to call and offer a payoff. With the bribe attempt on tape, they prosecuted and won a conviction and a 12 year sentence of hard time against Henry.

This sets the stage for the issue of this mayor's race. When Brad was elected almost 4 years ago, Henry has been convicted, but is still appealing (I think), of course he still owns the American Tap building. Brad beats out Maggie in a close race for mayor. Sheila is elected to her first term on the city council and there is a crack house in the middle of "The Strip".

Brad was elected as a pro-business mayor and had a real problem on his hands. The American Tap building was killing the downtown businesses. It was the number one issue for the business community in Carbondale, it was number one for Carbondale Main Street, it was number one for me personally. It had to be fixed. But Neil Dillard had already proven that a direct assault using the city's play book wasn't going to work, so something new was tried. You got it, Brad went and found Henry and talked to him.

It is an interesting thing about being a leader, sometimes you have to things you don't like for the good of the cause. You deal with people you don't like and hold your nose as you do it. You make deals you don't like because it is the best thing to do. Henry had the city in a corner, the building had to go, but Henry wasn't going to sell cheap.

Let's do the business analysis for buying "the Tap". The fair price was say $100k and the city paid $150k (maybe, it doesn't really matter), so they paid Henry a ransom of $50k or so to remove the tumor (Sheila's claim about appraised value is total BS, she had an issue and she had to go over the top. Plain unethical.). In business development for cities, this is a bargain. For example, the city gave "The Gap" $250k in tax breaks or so, in the Neil Dillard era. We are spending more then $50k on the TIF district on the east side of the tracks. In exchange, we have a revitalization of our downtown. I wrote an entry about downtown last week and there were some very interesting comments including one from Carbondale Main Street's executive director Roxanne Conley that says downtown is really doing well (I kind of fooled her by posting that early and linking them didn't I?). How many locally owned businesses would be out of business or on the ropes if this deal hadn't been done? How much sale tax revenue would the city be out?

Here is the problem that Brad faced, there was a cancer in the middle of Illinois Avenue that was going to kill the business around it eventually. Should it let them die or should he do painful surgery to fix the problem? If our child had cancer, hopefully we would be brave enough to do surgery. This is leadership, a nasty, painful job that someone had to do. You hold you nose and do it.

If Sheila had been mayor or if Maggie had won the last election, the drug addicts would still be shooting up in the American Tap. Henry Fisher wasn't going to sell it unless he could get a win in the local papers. No lawyerly BS was going to make Henry give up that land and our laws say he didn't have to.

I think a reasonable question is why that land hasn't sold yet. The answer is that the land is blocked right now by the doctor's office on the corner of Illinois and College. Once that doctor sells out (in a few years I hear, he just hates Henry too and doesn't want to sell to him), that building will come down and someone will build a nice business with those two prime lots.

This is a long explanation and thank you for reading this far into it. In the end, I have to support Brad in this election because of issues exactly like this. I want leadership and I want the city to win. Without Brad and his ideas, we are going to go back to the do nothing years we saw before he was elected.


Anonymous said...

Great job with the analysis of the Tap topic, Peter.
You nailed it. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand the connection you have made here. Are you saying that just because Simon offered another alternative, she would not have taken care of the problem? Why is it such a bad thing that she wanted to try something else before spending additional money on the building? Do you have evidence of Simon saying that she would not pursue the matter after she tried her "lawerly BS", as you put it?
Also, you call Simon unethical for even looking into the appraised value. I do not see how that is more unethical than Cole giving $150k (tax dollars) to a convicted child molester.

Peter in Carbondale said...

I guess this is to complicated?

The City of Carbondale had been at war with Henry Fisher for many years and were getting their butts kicked. The kind of things you can do to enforce code, don't work on an unoccupied building. For example, if there is an electrical problem, just cut the panel out. Bad for resale, but it does make the city's claims invalid. So we already knew that no code enforcement methods would work, that had been tried.

That Sheila claims that she has some magic lawyer sauce that will have a property owner lose their rights is total garbage. Being rich and motivated allows you to flick these challenges away without great concern. I would be very interested in what Sheila says she would do to force a property owner to lose their property rights. If she was mayor then, this case would be in the courts and running the city's lawyer bills up still.

Since this isn't Star Trek and future travel in alternative universes isn't possible yet, how could you prove anything about what Sheila would do if she was mayor, she wasn't and I don't think she ever will be.

As far as money goes, Sheila's campaign document (that I have read and you haven't I'm guessing) claims the city paid 3 times appraised value for The Tap. There is an issue that the city paid to much, but to claim it was 3 times to much is just hype. It was a stupid campaign trick and unethical IHMO. You are quoting my guess at $100k and $150k. I guess a lawyer could claim that writing misleading campaign documents is ethical, but in the real world the rest of us don't act like lawyers (thank goodness). Of course, real estate goes for whatever the buyer thinks it is worth, I have paid to much myself at times.

As far as dealing with convicted people, I'm going to guess that you aren't qualified to be mayor.

Of course, none of this matters a bit. If the question is should the city have purchased the Tap at the price paid, we do know that it was a great decision for the city. So Henry got to win and the city got to win. Brad held his nose and got it done, he improved the city. Sounds like a mayor who should be reelected doesn't it?

Bottom line, Sheila's attack on Brad, because of the American Tap deal, is crap.

Anonymous said...

This is ludicrous. The city had a number of other options for forcing Fischer's hand, including condeming the building or exercising iminent domain. Instead, Brad waited until people who disagreed with him were unavailable to attend the meeting and pushed it through, wasting public money in the process.

Even if you think it was OK to overpay to get rid of the building, the fact that it was done when the full council couldn't attend the meeting is questionable behavior.

Peter in Carbondale said...

We know that they couldn't condemn the building, look into it. As long as it is structurally sound you are going no where with that. There were no occupants, so there were no occupant safety issues. Neil Dillard and the city hall boys tried this for years.

How much would imminent domain cost in legal fees? How many years would it take? Then they would have paid Henry his $150k at the end. I'm sorry, your argument doesn't hold water in the real world.

Maybe the council rules should be changed so if one person does show up there is no voting? Oh wait, there are rules about this already. The vote on the Tap was 5-2 (Maggie and Sheila against wasn't it?).

The city should have paid as much as it took, it isn't the cost of the building that counts. It is the cost of not doing it.

Anonymous said...

Imminent domain, as far as I know, could only be applied if the city wahted to build something there. I do remember seeing the $50k in the press at the time. It may be incorrect, but I doubt S.S. made it up. Was Maggie still on the Council then??

I had mixed feelings about this issue at the time. Thanks for the additional info. But remember, part of the function of elections is to force government officials to explain, or re-explain, just these sorts of things.

Peter in Carbondale said...

In the real world it doesn't matter what the appraised value is, what matters is the value in the free market. Every lot in that area of downtown would be worth over $100k, if you wait for your buyer just a little. They aren't making anymore of it you know.

I had mixed feelings about it then and I have mixed feelings about it now. It was a really difficult situation, that now has been successfully navigated. This is what leaders do.

Personally, I think politicians shouldn't manufacture ethical issues by building on crap. My feeling is that Sheila's campaign document is based on crap for the Tap issue, she is trying to create an issue using lies and half truths.

chris lee said...

Is revenue up downtown since they tore the building down? If so, good, I would like to be directed to statistics. It seems like we could have waited henry out until the land would at least be valuable soon. I personally, would gladly have torched the place with henry inside. I would of course alerted the f.d. and adjoining businesses and even the crack heads before. I don't see why those squatter druggies have less rights than rapists, but that is way off topic, sorry.